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'Soul' has great visuals but the story falls short

by Courtney Lanning | December 25, 2020 at 1:39 a.m.
Yet-to-be-born spirit 22 (voice of Tina Fey) is skeptical of the ghostly Joe Gardner’s (Jamie Foxx) reviews of life on Earth in Pixar’s “Soul."

I have struggled to figure out what bothered me about Pixar's newest movie.

I know I harp on Pixar for usually beating out the underdog in best animated feature at the Oscars (LAIKA sends their regards), but the truth is I love most of its movies. I've cried to some of them: "Toy Story 3," "Onward" and "Coco."

Then there are some of Pixar's movies I absolutely hate, "Cars 2," "Finding Nemo," and the very concept of "Monsters University."

For "Soul" to wind up somewhere between those two extremes, is a bit confusing. There are things I legitimately enjoyed about the movie. But by the time it was finished, I found it fell just a bit short in terms of narrative.

When I first saw the trailer (which didn't reveal much), I set my expectations high. "Soul" promised to deal with some really big themes like purpose in life and what defines a soul. I can remember sitting in the local AMC theater at the end of last year (criminy, that seems so long ago) and watching the first teaser debut.

I leaned over to my wife, and we both remarked how, undoubtedly, "Soul" would be a movie that made us cry.

Then covid-19 hit, and Disney had to shift gears (after months of delays and stalling). The movie releases today on Disney+, and it's worth watching. I'm just left a little confused by Disney's strategy here.

Disney dropped its "Mulan" remake on the streaming service but required folks to pay an additional $30 to watch it (on top of the monthly subscription). What a scam that terrible business model was, especially when the movie turned out to be so lousy.

Netflix doesn't charge extra for any of its content. Why should Disney?

When Disney announced it would release "Soul" on Christmas for Disney+ subscribers, no extra fee, I welcomed the news. With covid-19 ravaging theaters, I believe all movies should be released to digital platforms without further delay.

I hoped "Black Widow" would soon follow. But no. That goes to theaters, and the House of Mouse announced it would release "Raya and the Last Dragon" on Disney+ for what the company called "premium access" (like "Mulan").

What does this say about Disney's faith in "Soul"? Is it not worth as much to Disney as "Mulan" and "Raya"?

Still, Disney granted me early access to the film to review it last weekend. (This surprised me, given what I regularly write about the company in my weekly film columns. Love y'all 3).

"Soul" looks beautiful. Human character designs, backgrounds, textures on clothing and objects, are all spectacular. Pixar is no slouch when it comes to 3D rendering. There were plenty of moments when I could see fabric on a suit or details on a saxophone that really made my eyes grow 20 times their size, like a cat looking at a lit Christmas tree. Artistically speaking, Pixar put its heart and -- well, you know, into this picture.

Then there's the representation, which, because I'm a (basic) white girl, I'm not qualified to comment on, except to say Black writers on Twitter seem pleased with the character designs. Not since "Brave," have I seen Pixar put so much effort into hair. The barbershop scene is probably one of the most beautiful sequences in the entire film.

My problem with "Soul" comes down to the story, which is shallow compared to what I feel like I was promised with the trailer.

The plot follows a middle school music teacher named Joe who dreams of playing jazz on stage with a band. Following a successful audition, he gets his chance and then promptly "dies" after falling into an open sewer.

Faced with the prospect of moving into the "Great Beyond," Joe escapes the escalator moving toward (the cliché) bright light at the end of the path and winds up in a place called the "Great Beginning." That's where souls are created and assigned their characteristics before heading to Earth.

There he meets 22, whom he is tasked with mentoring so 22 can complete its soul. Of course, his aim is to return to Earth before his body actually dies, and he doesn't get to play with the jazz band. High jinks ensue.

That's a lot of unnecessary layers to tell a story about finding the beauty in everyday life and learning your purpose.

In fact, the whole afterlife situation in this movie is fairly inconsistent and seems half-baked. For starters, is Joe the only one who thought to jump off the escalator heading toward the "Great Beyond"? Where do the other soul counselors come from? How are they chosen? Who are the sentient and apparently omnipotent beings that manage the afterlife?

Bringing in the afterlife sets up the story for all sorts of complexities it doesn't really take the necessary time to flesh out. And that really sums up the narrative concerns this movie faces. It introduces several great concepts, themes and plots, but "Soul" doesn't give any of them the proper attention to grow.

Joe is a solid character, and Jamie Foxx did a wonderful job voicing him. And while I'm not the biggest fan of Tina Fey, she was really funny as 22.

Their acting isn't the problem. It's the script they have to jump through that just wants to give everything surface-level attention because there are simply too many good ideas crammed into a 100-minute film.

"Soul" shows that Joe doesn't want to teach middle school band but also introduces us to two students who admittedly only stayed in school because of his teaching. That could have been a whole movie right there, with Joe learning to appreciate his place in life inspiring students and fostering their love of jazz. But he's written to seem oblivious of his students, or at the very least, to not care about their needs because he wants to play in a band.

Here's a good narrative for a movie. No need to rope in a half-baked afterlife. The character 22 could have been a neglected student of his who helps him to learn about purpose in life and how you can inspire others even when you don't realize it.

Joe also talked about his father introducing him to jazz before he passed away and has some clear tension with his well-meaning (and perhaps overly critical) mother. The family dynamic here should have gotten more attention than the two or three scenes it got. It felt rushed as a result. I would have loved to explore Joe's relationship with his mother since life had left their family reduced by one. But there was no time. Gotta cram in all the afterlife subplots that don't entirely add up or make sense.

While Joe is a great character, the movie's story points him in too many directions to really have a logical arc. Then there's 22, whose mental anguish and anxiety are shown well, but whose overall message is a little understated.

My favorite scenes in the movie were cutaway gags of 22 frustrating its past mentors, like Gandhi and Abraham Lincoln.

But when it came time for 22 to teach the audience how to appreciate the beauty of life, I was left confused. There are some great scenes like 22 learning to enjoy food and catching a leaf while sitting on a stairwell, but I couldn't tell you what the overall lesson was by the end of the movie.

Many ideas and themes in "Soul" don't get time to bloom. The afterlife bit is vague, and they essentially write it off as "your feeble human mind can't comprehend it," which is kind of an insult.

The movie essentially told its audience they were too stupid to comprehend any concept of death "Soul" would have created. So we were given the kiddie version instead. Really? This coming from the same studio that gave us "Up" and showed us Ed and Ellie falling in love, then tore them apart when Ellie died? This from the same studio that gave us "Coco" and taught the audience about the intricate beliefs of Día de Los Muertos? Don't treat viewers like they're dumb. Either create a fully-developed afterlife or don't include it in the movie.

I think the film would have benefited greatly from a little simplification and removal of supernatural elements.

But, seeing as "Soul" has a 98% on Rotten Tomatoes as I write this, I'm guessing I'll end up being in a lonely camp.

The soundtrack could have used a little beefing up, too. For a movie where jazz plays such a big role, I can't remember a single tune from the film. If a soundtrack is really good, I'll walk away humming the main theme days later.

Pixar and Disney should keep making original stories with more representation for minorities. They should take bold risks and trust new talent from communities that aren't often given enough chances to do great things in Hollywood.

I applaud Pixar for taking the leap. I hope they take more in the future. This one just didn't quite do it for me.

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